Thoughts on my critics, betting horses coming from half-mile tracks, throat surgery, jockey agents and French racing

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: One guy says I have no balls. Another calls me a fake and a fraud, I must be doing something right because if they are not talking about me I would be very boring.

To be perfectly honest, the vast majority of the comments I receive are very nice and the majority of you like the column and respect my honesty and my opinion. The guy who said I had no balls was because I disagreed with his assessment of a situation. The man is “self possessed” i.e.: so enamored with himself and the horses he owns it kills him not to be in the limelight. He would like to revamp the sales system to make it impossible to sell horses at auction. What happened to the words “reasonable” and “proper”. I have more faith in the market than to have to create rules that would institute havoc in the marketplace. If this opinion means I have no balls so be it.

All of us that love harness racing and football learned a big lesson this weekend. The calls made by the judges in our sport are much more accurate than the calls made on the field in football. For sure Sunday was one of the worst officiating days in history and in my humble opinion the Saints got cheated out of a spot in the Super Bowl and if I wanted to push the envelope a bit the roughing the passer call that extended the Patriots march to victory could have prematurely ended the Chiefs season. In games of such importance all calls should be reviewable by request.

I continue to get emails from people I have great respect for, explaining to me the untold “facts” in the Zeron saga. It is now official that an appeal has been made. I refuse to print or make decisions about the case until there is some official notifications from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. It is quite obvious to me that my wish for more transparency in the matter has fallen on deaf ears. My hope there is a swift decision in this case because all the speculation is not doing any good to our sport on the whole.

Congratulations to my good friend Sam Bowie on returning to our sport. Sam purchased a very nice trotter at Monday’s Tattersalls sale and has turned him over to my talented assistant Chris Lakata to race in the Metropolitan area. Best of luck to you both.

Carl Coppola asks: I like to bet the Meadowlands but find it difficult to handicap with horses shipping in from half-mile ovals like Yonkers and Freehold. Is there a way to evaluate these situations?

I find that to win at the Meadowlands a horse needs to be stretched out and half-mile tracks do just the opposite. On the bigger oval, you are going pretty much full tilt the entire mile. On the half, you see portions of the mile being backed down especially in the four turns. To me, a rule of thumb at the Meadowlands would be to throw out shippers from the half-milers until they have had at least a start on the larger track. The reverse to me is also true when horses come from the bigger track to the half-mile. I think they have a distinct advantage as long as they can negotiate the tighter corners.

Cheryl McGivern asks: Was wondering what you opinion is regarding laser vs old ways on entrapped epiglottis on a 2-year-old June foal. Do you have a preference on a surgeon?

To begin with, it’s been my experience that most babies grow out of these conditions, especially that young. Unless it is an extreme case where the colt can’t breathe properly, I would do nothing at all. I have had many with entrapment in January that went on to be fine. The best example was Self Possessed who was entrapped from the start and was never operated on and obviously turned out fine. It is very common in Valley Victory line sires. When you operate on a throat a laser or a scalpel provides a fine line that can easily grow back together. Dr John Cummins has a method of making the partition with his finger, which causes a jagged tear that is far less likely to return to normal in the healing process. I must mention that Dr. Hugh Llewelyn was the finest surgeon in this field and a mentor to many of today’s best practitioners, but unfortunately he has retired at a very young age.

Donald S Berman asks: Why don’t the top drivers use agents to book their mounts like the thoroughbred jockeys do?

You are comparing apples and grapes. The thoroughbred business has so much more going on than we do. There may be four or five days of severe conflict in our stake schedule where there are between 50 and a 100 in their business. Plus, many of the jockeys have a language barrier that we don’t have with a few exceptions (LOL). Jockeys get paid twice as much as drivers 10 per cent vs. five per cent and therefore would find the payment to an agent a lot less taxing. Also, it is important to note that many harness drivers make personal commitments to a trainer that they stand by 95 per cent of the time. Basically the answer to your question is that we just have no need for agents in our sport.

Paul London asks: I enjoy watching trotting from Vincennes, France. Obviously these trotters are bred for endurance. My question is do you think that trotters in the USA have too much equipment on? In France I see open bridles, no headpoles very simple.

The racing most watched here in America and Canada are 2- and 3-year-old stakes races. In Vincennes, you are watching horses with an average age of 6 or 7 that are experienced and need little corrective equipment. Not only do they not use head poles and wear open bridles, many race without head checks. I know that head poles are not permitted in Sweden, but I am not sure about France. I will say the soft track and large turns on the Paris oval would make it very conducive to a lack of equipment. Nowhere that I know of on our continent is there a surface in any way comparable to Vincennes. You cannot hear the footsteps of the horses.

When I was training, I was famous for lack of equipment — always had long head checks, no headpoles, no boots just brace bandages and almost never used a check bit. Jimmy Takter when he had a horse hung up like that would call it “A la Gurfein.”

The main reason for the lack of equipment in Europe is they are fussier about lameness than we are. In most venues on the continent, the horses parade in a tight circle unchecked in front of a veterinarian before each race. They must be unchecked because it makes lameness more evident. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Paris track, go for it. Without any reservation I will say it was the most impressive racetrack I have ever seen. The pomp and circumstance of the venue on the day of the Prix d’Amerique is only rivaled by Solvalla on the day of the Elitloppet, but they lack the food. The only track in America with similar appeal would be the Meadowlands in the earlier days or maybe Roosevelt Raceway in its heyday with the Cloud Casino.

Thanks to all of you for the kind words. Please keep your questions coming in. I promise to stay on top of the Zeron case till a decision is made or more revelations are brought forth. Have a wonderful week.

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